Pruning Apple Trees in 3 Easy Steps
How and when to prune apple trees
Regular pruning is the key to maintaining healthy and productive apple trees. But do you know how to prune apple trees so that they stay healthy for a long time, have the desired shape and regularly produce a bountiful harvest?
Pruning apple trees properly will promote a high quality and regular yield, as well as stimulate the tree to form new branches that will produce crops in the following years. At the same time, apple tree pruning aims to remove damaged and unpromising branches and thin out the crown of the tree. In the following three steps we will show you how to do this.
Step 1: Clean up
Start by removing dead, damaged and diseased branches. Also trim off any branches on the apple tree that are growing straight up (watersprouts). Any suckers on the trunk of the tree should also be removed. Cut them as close as possible to where they grow from another branch, leaving no stumps.
Step 2: Reduction and shaping
The goal of this step is to get light and air into the apple tree crown. This will ensure a better crop and reduce pest and disease problems. The first thing to do is to trim off any branches that are growing downwards, towards the center of the crown or in a crossing fashion.
After removing these branches, step back from the tree and see what it looks like. The goal is to have the branches evenly spaced and forming a nice fractal crown from the center. If you see places where multiple branches are competing, branches growing out of one spot, or branches that are growing parallel and close to each other, you can trim them off as well. Always keep the branches that look healthier and that make a better angle to the center of the tree (A helpful tip is to compare the angles to clock hands: 2:00 or 10:00 represent the ideal angles of the branches).
Branches with more obtuse angles can break under the weight of a heavy crop, and sharper angles cause excessive crown density. Continue thinning until there is an empty space of 10 to 50 cm/4 to 20 inches between the branches. The thiner the branches, the closer they can be to each other.
When pruning apple trees, keep in mind that they usually bear fruit on 2 to 4-year-old wood, so leave enough of these fruiting parts on the tree. On the other hand, by pruning off the thicker branches, you will stimulate the tree to produce new branches that will bear fruit in the following years. The essence of pruning an apple tree is therefore maintaining a balance between encouraging new growth and supporting a good yield for the current year.
Step 3 (optional): Heading
This step is recommended only when shaping young apple trees or when shortening branches that would later droop under the weight of the crop. There is no need to shorten the terminal branches on old, overgrown trees that do not have a problem with drooping or excessively long branches.
Simply trim the outermost branches so that they grow shorter and thicker. By doing this, you avoid long, drooping branches that are prone to breaking off under the weight of the crop, and this cut will also stimulate growth in the lower parts of the crown.
The thinnest annual branches can be pruned this way, removing no more than a quarter of their length. Always cut about 0,5 cm/ a quarter inch above the bud that's pointing in the direction that you want the branch to continue to grow. It is important to do this step last, only trimming the remaining branches (after step 1 and 2) at their tops. Otherwise, the trees tend to form suckers/watersprouts.
When to prune apple trees
When is the best time to prune apple trees? There are two recommended pruning periods: late-winter pruning and summer pruning. Pruning apple trees in winter should be done when there is no longer a risk of severe frost but the trees are still dormant (February to April, depending on your climate). Summer pruning can be done anytime from June to August.
Late-winter pruning is recommended if the apple tree needs rejuvenation, has poor growth or needs more substantial crown shaping. Summer pruning is recommended if the apple tree is too vigorous and you need to reduce growth, strengthen the crop or slightly shape the crown. The biggest advantage of summer pruning is that it does not stimulate new growth as much as winter pruning does. Summer pruning also leads apple trees to direct more energy into fruit production instead of encouraging the growth of new branches.
The principles for pruning apple trees in winter and summer are the same, but you should trim thicker branches during a late-winter pruning so that the tree has sufficient time to heal and regenerate.
Apple tree pruning tips
• The height and shape of apple trees is mainly influenced by their rootstock. If you choose a vigorously growing rootstock, you'll end up spending unnecessary effort cutting the overgrown apple tree back to your desired height year after year. This is why it's important to consider rootstock types when selecting young trees.
• Watersprouts are good indicators of tree overpruning, as trees produce them after excesive pruning when their leaf area is insufficient.
• Sharp pruning shears ensure clean, smooth cuts, so sharpen them before trimming.
• Do not leave removed branches near the tree. Either burn them or move them away from the tree.
• The young suckers are not yet lignified in June, so they can be easily pulled off by hand, making the job much easier.
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